Dr Ali Shariati, a reformist voice in Islam
The worst poster boys for Islam
I received a number of emails on my last blog, Reform Now. Most of the people who wrote to me asked whether I could comment more on the list of reforms that I suggested in the second part of the blog.
Well, here is a sincere attempt.
I would like to acknowledge eminent scholars and authors such as Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, Ziauddin Sardar, Muhammad Akhund, Ali Shariati, Irshad Manji, Dr. Fazalur Rehman, Musa Al-Sadr, and Abdullah Chakralawi, whose published work helped me construct this modest attempt.
While formulating Islamic laws, a rationalist and contextual approach to Islamic sources should be taken, keeping in mind Islam’s core values i.e., justice and mercy.
Islamic rules should always meet the following criteria: Compatibility with reason and compatibility with the requirements of (modern) times and people’s preferences.
How is that possible, wouldn’t the traditionalists protest?
Well, let’s take the example of Quranic verses dealing with slavery. Understandably, the institution of slavery was perceived as perfectly acceptable in the seventh century. But from eighteenth century onwards, through a widespread civil consensus between various world civilisations (including the Muslims), slavery was abolished as being an inhuman act.
Just imagine what the state of the Muslims would have been had they insisted on retaining slavery. The so-called Muslim ummah would have stood completely isolated with millions of Muslims preferring to adopt a more accommodating religion.
So my point is that when traditionalists demand that the Quran be understood literally and laws should then be based on this literalist reading, they are actually undermining the evolutionary spirit of the Holy book and relegating its status to being a document frozen in the social, political and cultural ethos of a distant past.
Islam and Islamic law should be understood and implied by each generation according to its own conditions.
We should define Islam in such a way that it does not undermine its global standing. For this we need educated, pragmatic and rational political and cultural spokespersons. Obviously, people like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are the worst poster boys for Islam in the modern world.
But so are sectarian and communal hate-mongers found on TV screens these days across the Muslim world, and the many Muslim preachers doing the same in mosques in the West – ironically cursing and abusing anything to do with the West while at the same time gleefully benefiting from their adopted countries’ democratic and generous welfare systems.
And what about Muslims in the West who are fighting a little battle to wear the hijab and burqas in Paris, Zurich and London? Whenever a Pakistani protests at a western government’s take on the hijab and burqa, I usually agree with him. But at the same time, if the protester thinks that the French and the Swiss are being close-minded and intolerant, this does not mean we are any better. Harassment of women not wearing a hijab or a burqa is rampant in various parts of Pakistan.
Religion does not play such a major role in the lives of most Europeans. But they do take their secular values as seriously as Pakistanis do their religious principles. If we would like them to respect this side of ours, then we should be fully prepared to understand their values too – especially when we live among them in countries run by their ideals, beliefs and rules.
Most current Islamic rules regarding women’s rights do not meet the criteria of either justice or rationality. Most of these rules were devised by ancient jurists who were all men. Even in this day and age, it is the men who decide what is good or bad for Muslim women. A woman’s right to decide and make her own decisions decreed by the Quran is blatantly ignored, and hard-to-authenticate hadiths are often used to hit home the conservative male’s point of view on the matter.
But then, sadly, there are some Muslim women who inexplicably defend the conservative male point of view regarding Muslim women. Recently one saw a member of the PML-Q on a Pakistani television channel doing exactly that.
She had every right to air her stance, but think about it; what a disaster she might have been to the struggle of thousands of Muslim women in Pakistan who are doing a remarkable job in trying to assert their rights given to them not only by democracy, but by the Quran itself.
Can a woman who adorns a hijab and explains it as a liberating act, may as well be submitting to the historical male-driven tradition of claiming control over women?
Purda or wearing the hijab is an outcome of laws and social mores constructed over the last many centuries by judges, ulema and lawmakers who were all male. The Holy Book addresses the faithful women, who are told to shield their private parts and not to display their adornment ‘except what is apparent of it.’ Scholarly disputes in the Muslim world revolve around what this last phrase means.
To modern Muslim thinkers, Muslim women enjoyed great autonomy in public and private life during the time of the Prophet — an autonomy they say, which later Muslim rulers and ulema took away. The issue of hijab is often used by conservative Muslims as a weapon against the struggle of Muslim women who want to understand the autonomy that was given to them during the Prophet’s time. These struggling women want to undo what came afterwards in the shape of various gender-biased laws and social practices aimed at subduing and controlling women.
The patriarchal notions of women’s rights and laws among Islamists have their roots in ancient pre-Islamic Arab culture and prejudices and not in Islam. No religious principal should be imposed by force, because Islam has declared that there is no compulsion in faith.
There is nothing wrong in asking a person to pray, adorn the hijab or grow a beard, just as there is no harm if that person does not pray, wear a hijab or grow a beard. It’s a matter between him/her and God. And if he/she does not believe in a God, then it’s a matter that does not concern you, as long as he/she is not imposing his lack of faith.
Quran is a book of guidance. So the state, government or any political group or lobby cannot force people to observe rules intended as guidance, because judgement, punishment and reward in this respect belongs to God.
Democracy (in Muslim countries) is the best system at this point in time.
The many reformist regimes in the Muslim world which once proudly implemented various modernist economic and political ideas failed to revitalise their societies. Industrial development and modern education were attempted but without also allowing a vibrant democratic culture to prevail.
Democracy is vital to sustain economic, social and political development. Without it one is only implementing Modernism without modernity. The result, as we have seen in various modern Muslim states, is the emergence of dictatorships and societies that were always venerable to becoming myopic and intransigent at the first sign of economic and political failure.
Islam has neither proscribed nor prescribed a particular form of government.
No matter what Syed Qutb or Abul Ala Mauddudi wanted us to believe, Islam in the light of the Quran only wants to ensure that governments, whatever their form, are based on justice. The whole idea of a so-called ‘Islamic State’ is a twentieth century concoction.
Islam should not be identified with politics because ‘political Islam’ (that pursues to create an ‘Islamic State’) has led to repression and encouraging the religion’s abuse for individual and group advantage.
The usage of hadith in legislation should be handled carefully and critically because most are difficult to authenticate.
A government or an individual using a hadith as a pretext for any action does not mean that action has divine approval. It usually means that that government and individual is simply exploiting religion to forward their own version of the faith. Or maybe the issue is entirely non-religious, but a hadith is being used to give it a religious colour. Who is to say which hadith is authentic or not?
All administrative and political matters are human affairs and hence, not subject to religious rules.
Shariah is man-made. It needs to be updated, refreshed and revitalised through ijtihad (rational/open debate), and according to the needs of the time.
The Shariah was formulated according to conditions of a particular time and place (medieval Arabia). Power of Islamic legislation should flow back to the people through democracy.
The spirit and body of Islam is represented by the people and not by religious organisations or the clergy because Muslims commune directly with God.
By discouraging democracy, looking for scapegoats for ones own failings, and turning religion into a hollow ritualistic and rhetorical fest has drained the spirit of Islam of some of it most imperative ingredients: justice, progress, reason and mercy.
There is no official clergy in Islam. In fact, a lack of official clergy in the religion makes it most compatible with secularism. Yet, we are always going against this by constructing pillars of political and spiritual officialdom that trap us within their narrow confines, leaving us cut-off from our true potentials to play an open and intellectually robust role in world affairs.
Islam provides the ethical basis of a society, while government is based on rational premises. Thus, there is no need for the caliphate as a model for the exercise of power.
The call for a modern caliphate is nothing more than yet another synthetic and fanciful pillar of religious-political officialdom.
The state/government has political functions while religious functions belong to the people according to their own will, need and consensus. To avoid dictatorship, repression, state coercion and stagnation, Muslim political systems must not rest on theological foundations.
Everything under the unity of God is plural. There is only one God, but many kinds and types of Muslims. Rather, all types of men and women, Muslim or otherwise. Nobody but God can determine exactly who or what a real or true Muslim is, and/or who or what a kafir, or an infidel, is.
There are two telling verses in the Quran:
“To you your religion, to me my religion.” (Sura 109, Verse 6).
“To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and
an Open Way. And if God had enforced His
Will, He would have made of you all one
people.” (Sura 5, Verse 46)
Hence it is quite clear that hostile and discriminatory forms of inter-religious relations have nothing to do with Islam.
Belief in God must mean a faith in humility, justice, mercy, reason, tolerance and spiritual and material well-being. Going against these (especially in the name of faith) is an exhibition of arrogance and bigotry, and of passing judgment on matters that God alone has the wisdom and power to adjudicate.